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Cherry Smith on Sarah Pucill's work for a collaborative show with Phil Sayers at the Real gallery, new York, 1998

At first sight, the filmic work of Sarah Pucill and Phil Sayers' photographs appear to be having a similar converstion but in different rooms. But on closer reading many of their concerns, thematic and formal, are tightly related. Both skate triumphantly along the borderline between genders, between figuration and abstraction and between subject and object positions. The body is their territory for interrogation, a site where splitting occurs in an attempt to reformulate how the self is known and witnessed. The formal techniques of overlaying and the blurring of the line between fantasy and reality are used by each artist to evoke a sense of haunting by the absent other, the repressed self. The female body is their site of transformation.

Sarah Pucill's latest work, Swollen Stigma (1998) is a fairy take for the 90s, starring Rose White and Rose Red, played by two estranged lovers, or two parts of one psyche. There is the quest for love, for sex, for the missing beloved and prerequisite, repeated thwarting of the hero's desire. As in Pucill's earlier work, You be Mother (1990) , Milk and Glass (1993) and Backcomb (1995), she is concerned with boundaries and the leakage between them - fantasy/reality, animate/inanimate, blood/water, interior/exterior, pain/pleasure. While both artists use the domestic site to explore gender, Sayers takes on the feminine in order to highlight the false binaries of gender, while Pucill continues to deconstruct femininity from within and to represent the lesbian subject with great potency and resonance.

Swollen Stigma approaches the symmetry of self, the mirroring and merging we seek in the other. It evokes and destroys the putative narcissism of lesbian desire. A woman in black waits alone, looking into an empty chair. The black and white film and stark interiors have the taste of nostalgia. She pulls at her eyelashes, which like her, are fragile, yet resilient. There is a sense of deeply quiet neurosis. We move from macro intensity to wide shots as she explores the rooms of the house/her mind, where she enncounters a woman in a blonde wig, hanging upside down. Inverted. Invert. The fluttering sound of birds' wings recurs. We are unable to know if they are trapped or taking off, just as we cannot know how much the womens's separation is willed or forced. An unease is established through the still waiting and the mobile searching, through the change from macro to wide shot. We cannot know whether the blonde woman lies asleep or dead, but we recognise the games the mind plays as it constructs the imagined death of the phantasm Other. A preparatory grief. A superstitious playing out of a fantasy that should never happen.

In a highly erotic and fresh moment, the protagonist seeks comfort in the kitchen and the image changes into colour as the cupboard doors she opens become a woman's legs being spread. It recalls the use of the woman-house by Louise Bourgeois in her early work and the Surrealist referrences to the work of Maya Deren are evident in the collapsing of the domestic and the erotic. The mood evokes Judith Butler's naming off lesbianism as 'the phantasm of the phantasm'.

In Sayers' work, the mundanities of the kitchen work in sharp contrast to his subject, while in Pucill's, the functions of washing dishes and preparing food measure the protagonist's emotional control amidst the associative objects that bombard her. The gas ring becomes a bright peony, a burning passion. She makes white sauce, one of the first complicated things she learnt to cook. There is no recipe for loving other women. While flower petals and stamens are common metonyms for labia and the clitoris. Pucill, inspired by Virginia Woolf's description of lesbian desire as 'the match burning in the crocus' in 'Mrs Dalloway', reshapes and extends their meaning. The protagonist lights the fat ends of the stamens of a bunch of wide tulips and the flowers glow torchlike with destrictuve flames to sugges the pain beneath exquisite bliss. The scene also echoes Chantale Akerman who used her own image as a yound girl setting a bunch of flowers alight in her first film, 'Saute Ma Vie' suggesting that the action is one of sapphic renunciation of the traditional symbols of female beauty and heterosexual courtship.

Mortality and displacement are further evoked when Pucill's protagonist drags flowers from the garden soil by their roots, tugs eyebrow hairs firmly from her skin. Can she dig out the love implanted by the other? The wound that won't heal is reflected in every object. As if the frenzy of her memory of the lost sex becomes boundless, she begins to lick the open petals of a lily, pollen stroking her cheeks. She prepares the heads of red roses, washing them like strawberries in a colander, rinsing them under the faucet. The sound builds up the narrative with the damp crackle of flames fizzling out. The flowers are laid out on a white plate and cut up with a knife and fork. Seeking transubstantiation, she begins to eat them, the light catching the wet petals like glossy liver, red juices trickling from her mouth. She is devouring the sex, making it hers, conquering its hold. Yet the following close-up of the quivering head of the stamen of a calla lily recalls the eyelash, standing up and out - the female signifier. It is a cold erotic mark that cannot be removed or quelled.

'She rose in the East, where red curtains
rise as the Star appears in rubies;
she died where the ocean, flushed with desire
buries light in its deepest places'. (1)

In the final scenes, the blonde phantom takes over the dreamer, and is now the one who watches and waits from the chair. She makes her soup of white llies. They are not together. They eat alone, each ripped up, reduced. The violence of their passion is not played out in grand melodrama but in quiet, melancholic, tiny acts. Evenly paced. Split up. Split off.

In 'Swollen Stigma', Pucill captures wonderfully the claustrophobia of longing and the eerie disjuncture of separateness. There is no neat, easy resolution.

Both artists achieve a self-determination and self-actualisation that critically interrupt the way identity and gender are read, forging a visual language that says what language cannot quite articulate, burying light in the deepest places.

(1) From Elegy, by Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, translated by Joan Larkin and Jaime Manrique

Cherry Smyth is a critic and writer. Her poetry, essays and fiction have been anthologised widely in such collections as Virago New Poets (Virago Press, 1992), What She Wants, Women Artists Look At Men (Verso, 1994), Queer Romance (Routledge, 1995), and Wee Girls, Women Writing From An Irish Perspective (Spinifex Press, 1996).

She is the author of Queer Notions (Scarlet Press, 1992), which charts the rise of queer politics in the UK and Damn Fine Art By New Lesbian Artists (Cassell, 1996), which outlines new lesbian European and American Art. From 1992-6 she curated the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. She has written for Frieze, Art Monthly, and ICA catologue publications. She is Irish and lives between London and the USA.

Cherry Smith
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